War novel launched in Maseru

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Mohalenyane Phakela

NAMIBIAN author, Brenda Shepherd this week launched her first novel, a world war-themed offering, Men of the Mendi, at the Alliance Française de Maseru.

Although generally not given much prominence, the colonial powers including Britain relied heavily on African soldiers to fight for them in the first (1914 to 1918) and second (1939 to 1945) world wars.

And Shepherd’s novel tells the story of the sinking of the British 4230 GRT passenger steamship, SS Mendi, during World War 1.

The ship had 806 black soldiers from the southern African tribes of Transvaal, Free State, Natal, Cape, Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Basutoland (Lesotho) when it sank on 21 February, 1917 after colliding with British merchant ship, SS Darro while on its way from South Africa to the Le Havre Port of France.

616 soldiers (607 of them Xhosa, Swazi, Batswana and Basotho) and 30 crewmen were killed in the mishap.

Shepherd was born in Oranjemund (Namibia) but spent most of her adult life in Cape Town where she matriculated. She currently resides in Clarens, Free State, and holds degrees in English and Communication Science.

The ceremony was attended by the AF members, the Lesotho Defence Force and the public.

Shepherd described Men of Mendi as a “historical novel aimed at giving a voice to the almost forgotten Sothern African heroes who voluntarily played a major role in World War I”.

“Of the 802 soldiers on board the SS Mendi, 26 came from Basutoland. David Moshesh, a grandson of Moshoeshoe 1 features in the book. He was the last man to be rescued from the freezing waters of the English Channel and he was among the 195 survivors who went on to serve in France,” she said.

Shepherd’s is a story of the bravery of the men who boarded the ship and the ensuing enquiry conducted by the Board of Trade in London into their deaths.

The story follows a small band of survivors to France where they complete their tour of duty.

It references historical documents and transcripts from the enquiry held in London. It gives an in depth account of the enquiry and the apparent reason for the cover-up as the transcripts were concealed from public view for the next 50 years.

Now, for the first time, these proceedings are covered in the novel thus revealing the truth behind the deaths of so many men.

“I spent seven years researching and writing the story,” Shepherd said, adding she first heard of the Mendi tragedy during a book review on radio.

She said she was however disappointed upon finding the particular book had only two pages talking about the Mendi and this drove her to do more research on the issue.

“I searched for more information and I first wrote the story as a film script which won an award in 2004 for best action drama at the Sithengi Film Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.

“Some years later, I began to write it as a book, meaning a lot more research which took me to archives in South Africa, England, France and the Isle of Wight. The Mendi lies 12 miles off the Isle of Wight and rests 40 metres beneath the surface in cold murky water,” she told the Weekender on the sidelines of the launch.

For his part, AF Director Remi Beghin said Africans played a crucial role in helping his home country of France during World War I.

“I am not that knowledgeable when it comes to World War I and I look forward to reading the book.

“The soldiers who came from Africa went to fight in a war that was never theirs which makes us Europeans forever indebted to them,” he said.

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